Since the countdown to the World Cup in Qatar began, conversations around the tournament have centred on issues within the host country rather than the football. Qatar’s archaic views towards gay rights and the mistreatment of migrant workers who built the stadiums have been debated and agonized over by football fans, pundits, politicians, and others all around the world.
Discussion around these issues are undeniably important. However, it is interesting how women’s rights in Qatar are mostly an afterthought when criticising the country’s suitability to hosting an international sporting event.
Women in Qatar are unable to marry, hold certain jobs, or leave the country under the age of 25 without permission from a male relative. Despite the magnifying glass held over Qatar this year, just quite how far the country’s legislation goes to diminish women’s rights has not yet been deeply explored.
Although Qatar’s Constitution provides equality before the law without discrimination on the basis of sex, its Family Law, most notably its concept of guardianship, contradicts this.
When a man in Qatar turns 18 years- old, he is granted full legal capacity. A woman, however, continues to have a male guardian, a ‘wali al-amr,’ despite the fact that she is an adult. This could be her father, brother, uncle, or grandfather. When married, a woman’s husband automatically becomes her new guardian.
But just how stringent is guardianship in Qatar? Well, women are unable to marry without male guardian permission. On the other hand, men are allowed to have four wives at any one time.
Women cannot be guardians to their own children, cannot register the births of their children, and, if they get a divorce, they face a very real risk of losing custody of their children due to the male guardianship law. One Qatari woman, Um Qahtan, told Human Rights Watch that her ex-husband, who had been abusive towards her children, maintained guardianship over them.
This can lead to a dangerous misuse of power, such as in the case of Qahtan, whose ex-husband tried to prevent her 17-year-old daughter from having a heart operation in 2019. Qahtan had temporary custody, but as her ex-husband was the guardian, the doctor cancelled the procedure after he insisted upon it. Fortunately, his brother convinced him to allow his daughter to have the operation, albeit with another doctor so he could still remain in control. Obedience to men under Qatar Family Law essentially reduces the legal status of grown women to that of children.
What some may consider a glimmer of hope- the fact that there are more female Qatari university graduates than male—merely highlights the inequality in the country. Although 38,000 Qatari women graduated in 2018, the employment rate is just 37 percent, compared to the men’s which sits at 68 percent.
When entering the workplace, women face yet more discrimination. While there is no law stating that women must to obtain permission from their guardian to work, there is also no law prohibiting institutions from requiring this permission. Qatari women are also limited in the type of work they are allowed to do. The Qatar Labour Law states that a female worker “shall not be employed in dangerous or hard or arduous work, or work which harms their health or morals.”
You cannot argue that sport is not political: it simply always has been. Take the impact that the cricket Bodyline series had on international relations between Australia and England in the 1930s, or various football teams’ decision to take the knee before each game in the 2021 Euros. When an event is watched by over a billion people (according to FIFA’s 2018 estimate), and there is copious amounts of money involved, it is impossible for it to remain completely isolated. Politics always seeps in.
FIFA decided to allow the World Cup, what is meant to be a celebration of sport across the entire globe, to be hosted by a country where women are treated as second-class citizens, and homosexuality is illegal. This sends a clear message to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community around the world that football, and tournaments such as these, are not for us to enjoy.
And what about the Qatari women? FIFA’s decision to hold the tournament in a country where these demographics are not only suffering at the hands of the general culture but due to explicit pieces of legislation that limit their rights tells those people that they don’t matter quite as much as money.
Despite what they say, football, it seems, is not for everyone, unless you are okay with being uncomfortable and visiting a country where you are seen as “less than”.
When a country hosts the World Cup, it becomes the center of the world’s celebration. It is able to showcase its culture, its landscape, and its hospitality. Should Qatar be allowed to do that when that same culture oppresses women, gay people, and migrant workers?
This is a question many people are happy to answer. Just not those with the power.